The 1996 Ramón Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts
BIOGRAPHY of Nick Joaquín
Resil B. Mojares
He was the greatest Filipino writer of his generation. Over six decades and a half, he produced a body of work unmatched in richness and range by any of his contemporaries. Living a life wholly devoted to the craft of conjuring a world through words, he was the writer’s writer. In the passion with which he embraced his country’s manifold being, he was his people’s writer as well.
Nick Joaquín was born in the old district of Pacò in Manila, Philippines, on September 15, 1917, the feast day of Saint Nicomedes, a protomartyr of Rome, after whom he took his baptismal name. He was born to a home deeply Catholic, educated, and prosperous. His father, Leocadio Joaquín, was a person of some prominence. Leocadio was a procurador (attorney) in the Court of First Instance of Laguna, where he met and married his first wife, at the time of the Philippine Revolution. He shortly joined the insurrection, had the rank of colonel, and was wounded in action. When the hostilities ceased and the country came under American rule, he built a successful practice in law. Around 1906, after the death of his first wife, he married Salomé Márquez, Nick’s mother. A friend of General Emilio Aguinaldo, Leocadio was a popular lawyer in Manila and the Southern Tagalog provinces. He was unsuccessful however when he made a bid for a seat in the Philippine Assembly representing Laguna.
Nick Joaquín’s mother was a pretty, well-read woman of her time who had studied in a teacher-training institute during the Spanish period. Though still in her teens when the United States took possession of the Philippines, she was among the first to be trained by the Americans in English, a language she taught in a Manila public school before she left teaching after her marriage.
Leocadio and Salomé built a genteel, privileged home where Spanish was spoken, the family went to church regularly, had outings in the family’s huge European car (one of the first Renaults in the city), and the children were tutored in Spanish and piano. Salomé (“who sings beautiful melodies and writes with an exquisite hand,” recalls a family member) encouraged in her children an interest in the arts. There were ten children in the family, eight boys and two girls, with Nick as the fifth child. The Joaquín home on Herrán Street in Pacò was a large section of a two-story residential-commercial building —the first such building in Pacò— that Leocadio had built and from which the family drew a handsome income from rentals. In this home the young Nick had “an extremely happy childhood.”
Leocadio Joaquín, however, lost the family fortune in an investment in a pioneering oil exploration project somewhere in the Visayas in the late 1920s. The family had to move out of Herrán to a rented house in Pásay. Leocadio’s death not long after, when Nick was only around twelve years old, was a turning point in the life of the family.
Reticent about his private life, Nick Joaquín revealed little about his father. In the manner of fathers of his time, Leocadio must have been a presence both distant and dominant. He was already an accomplished man when Nick was born. One has a glimpse of him in the character of the proud Doctor Chávez in Joaquín’s short story “After the Picnic,” the father who lives by a strict patriarchal code and yet is all at once remote, vulnerable, and sympathetic. In an early poem, Joaquín vaguely alluded to what in his father was somehow beyond reach (“the patriot life and the failed politician buried with the first wife”). Yet he mourned the void his father’s death left: “One froze at the graveside in December’s cold, / childhood stashed with the bier. Oh, afterwards / was no time to be young, until one was old.”
The young Joaquín dropped out of school. He had attended Pacò Elementary School and had three years of secondary education in Mapa High School but was too intellectually restless to be confined in a classroom. Among other changes, he was unable to pursue the religious vocation that his strictly Catholic family had envisioned to be his future. Joaquín himself confessed that he always had the vocation for the religious life and would have entered a seminary if it were not for his father’s death.
After he left school, Joaquín worked as a mozo (boy apprentice) in a bakery in Pásay and then as a printer’s devil in the composing department of the Tribune, of the TVT (Tribune-Vanguardia-Taliba) publishing company, which had its offices on F. Torres Street in Manila’s Santa Cruz district. This got him started on what would be a lifelong association with the world of print.
Through this time he pursued a passion for reading. Sarah K. Joaquín, Nick’s sister-in-law, recounts that in his teens Nick had a “rabid and insane love for books.” He would hold a book with one hand and read while polishing with a coconut husk the floor with his feet. He would walk down a street, on an errand to buy the family’s meal, with a dinner pail in one hand and an open book in the other.
Both his parents had encouraged his interest in books. When he was around ten, his father got him a borrower’s card at the National Library (then in the basement of the Legislative Building in Luneta) and there he discovered Bambi and Heidi and the novels of Stevenson, Dumas, and Dickens (David Copperfield was his great favorite). He explored his father’s library and the bookstores of Carriedo in downtown Manila. He was voracious, reading practically everything that caught his fancy, from the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Vachel Lindsay to the stories of Anton Chekhov, to the novels of Dostoyevsky, D. H. Lawrence, and Willa Cather. He read American magazines (Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Magazine) and discovered the fiction of Booth Tarkington, Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.
Joaquín’s choice of early readings was not exceptional. Joaquín and other writers of his generation who were schooled in the American era discovered Dostoyevsky and Hemingway before they did such Tagalog writers as Lope K. Santos and Rosauro Almario. Yet, it can be said that Joaquín never really lost his sense of where he was. He read Manila’s English-language newspapers and magazines for what Filipinos themselves were writing. (He had read the José Rizal novels in the Charles Derbyshire translation before he was thirteen, Joaquín said.) He always had a strong sense of place, a virtue that was to become a hallmark of his body of work. “When I started writing in the late 1930s,” he would recall many years later, “I was aware enough of my milieu to know that it was missing from our writing in English. The Manila I had been born into and had grown up in had yet to appear in our English fiction, although that fiction was mostly written in Manila and about Manila.”
His first short story dealt with the vaudeville of Manila, “The Sorrows of Vaudeville,” and was published in Sunday Tribune Magazine in 1937. (The editors changed its title to “Behind Tinsel and Grease.”) Earlier, in 1934, he published his first poem in English, a piece about Don Quixote. The story is told that when this poem appeared in the Tribune, Serafín Lanot, the Tribune’s poetry editor, liked the poem very much and went to congratulate the poet when he came to collect his fee, but the shy and elusive Joaquín ran away.
Very early, Joaquín was set on crafting his own voice. Writing in 1985 on his early years as a writer, he said that it appeared to him in the 1930s that both an American language and an American education had distanced Filipino writers in English from their immediate surroundings. “These young writers could only see what the American language saw.” It was “modern” to snub anything that wore the name of tradition and, for the boys and girls who trooped to the American-instituted schools, Philippine history began with Commodore Dewey and the Battle of Manila Bay. “The result was a fiction so strictly contemporary that both the authors and their characters seemed to be, as I put it once, ‘without grandfathers.’” He recalled: “I realize now that what impelled me to start writing was a desire to bring in the perspective, to bring in the grandfathers, to manifest roots.”
This was Nick Joaquín recalling in 1985 what it was like in the 1930s. Back then, the young Joaquín was just beginning to find his way into a literary life. He was gaining notice as a promising writer, publishing between 1934 and 1941 a few stories and over a dozen poems in the Herald Mid-Week Magazine and the Sunday Tribune Magazine. The literary scene was vibrant in the Commonwealth years, as writers and critics debated the role and direction of Philippine writing and formed feuding groups such as the Philippine Writers League and the Veronicans. Joaquín stood at the periphery of this scene. He probably had little time to be too reflective. He was already trying to fend for himself while quite young. He was also growing into a world that was marching toward the cataclysm of a world war.
The period of the Japanese occupation was a difficult time for the Joaquíns who, at this time, had moved from Pásay to a house on Arlegui Street in the historic San Miguel district of Manila, where Malacañang Palace is located. Like other residents in the enemy-occupied city, Joaquín scavenged for work to help support the family. The Japanese had closed down the Tribune and other publications at the onset of the occupation. Joaquín worked as a port stevedore, factory watchman, rig driver, road worker, and buy-and-sell salesman. Seeing corpses on the street, working for a wage in rice, demeaned by fear and poverty, Joaquín detested the war. He later said in an interview that the experience of the war so drained both his body and spirit that when it was over, he was filled with the desire to leave the country and go somewhere far. He dreamed of pursuing a religious vocation by going to a monastery in Spain or somewhere in Europe, “somewhere where you could clean up.”
Through the war years, he continued writing when and where he could. He finished “The Woman Who Felt Like Lazarus,” a story about an aging vaudeville star, and the essay “La Naval de Manila.” Both appeared in the wartime English-language journal Philippine Review in 1943. A monthly published by the Manila Sinbun-sya and edited by Vicente Albano Pacis and Francisco Icasiano, the Review also published Joaquín’s story “It Was Later Than We Thought” (1943) and his translation of Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adios (1944). Readers were beginning to take notice. He cultivated a persona inaccessible and mysterious. When he was asked to fill up a biographical form for the Review, he simply wrote down: “25 years old, salesman.”
“La Naval de Manila” tells of a Manila religious celebration built on the tradition that the Blessed Virgin had miraculously intervened in the Spanish victory over a Dutch invasion fleet in 1646. Already it sets forth a major theme Joaquín would develop in the years ahead: that the Filipino nation was formed in the matrix of Spanish colonialism and that it was important for Filipinos to appreciate their Spanish past. He wrote: “The content of our national destiny is ours to create, but the basic form, the temper, the physiognomy, Spain created for us.” The article triggered an angry response in a subsequent issue of the Review from Federico Mañgahas, then a leading intellectual, who testily inquired why the Review was “building up” this young writer who would have readers believe that precolonial Philippine society was just a primeval “drift of totem-and-taboo tribes” and that Catholic saints can be the country’s unifying national symbols. Joaquín declined to reply but he had raised an issue that would continue to be debated after the war.
After the Americans liberated Manila in February–April 1945, Joaquín worked as a stage manager for his sister-in-law’s acting troupe and dreamed of getting away. In the meantime, he continued writing and publishing. He obviously did not sleepwalk through the years of the war but was writing out stories in his head. In heady years right after the war, he published in rapid succession such stories as “Summer Solstice,” “May Day Eve,” and “Guardia de Honor.” These stories have become Nick Joaquín’s signature stories and classics in Philippine writing in English.
The opportunity to leave the country came in 1947 when he was accepted as a novice at Saint Albert’s College, a Dominican monastery in Hong Kong. The story is told that the Dominicans in Manila were so impressed by his “La Naval de Manila” that they offered him a scholarship to Saint Albert’s and had the Dominican-run University of Santo Tomás award him an honorary Associate in Arts certificate so he would qualify. His stay at Saint Albert’s schooled him in Latin and the classics. He enjoyed the pleasant diversions of the scenic port city and the occasional company of his brother Porfirio (Ping) who was in Hong Kong on a stint as a jazz musician. It seemed, however, that he was too restless for life in a monastery. He stayed less than two years and returned to Manila.
Back in the Philippines in 1950, he joined the country’s leading magazine, Philippines Free Press, working as a proofreader, copywriter, and then member of the staff. At this time, Free Press was so widely circulated across the country and so dominant a medium for political reportage and creative writing, it was called “the Bible of the Filipinos.” Practically all middle-class homes in the country had a copy of the magazine.
Joaquín’s Free Press years established him as a leading public figure in Philippine letters. In its pages appeared the stories and essays that made him known to a wide national audience. The publication of Prose and Poems (1952), a collection of short stories, poems, a novella, and a play, cemented his reputation as an original voice in Philippine literature. He mined a lode of local experience that no one had quite dealt with in the way he did. He summoned ancient rites and legends, evoked a Filipino Christianity at once mystical and profane, and dramatized generational conflicts in a modern society that had not quite come to terms with its past. His was a vision that ranged through a large expanse of history in an English so full-bodied and a style sensuous and sure.
In 1955, his first play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino: An Elegy in Three Scenes, was premiered on stage at the Aurora Gardens in Intramuros, Manila, by the Barangay Theater Guild. He had written the play sometime around 1950 upon the urgings of Sarah Joaquín, who was active in Manila’s theater circles. Though it had been published in Weekly Women’s Magazine and Prose and Poems in 1952 and had been aired on radio, the play was not staged until 1955. It proved to be an immense success. It was made into an English-language movie by the highly respected Filipino filmmaker Lamberto V. Avellana in 1965, translated into Tagalog, adapted in other forms, and staged hundreds of times. No Filipino play in English has been as popular.
Using the flashback device of a narrator who recalls the sad fate of a prewar family as he stands in the ruins of postwar Manila, the play sets itself not only in the divide of war but that of past and present in Philippine society. Tracing the disintegration of an old and proud family in the transition from past to present, Nick Joaquín explored what had been abiding themes in his writing across the years.
He did not see the premiere of the play since, in 1955, Joaquín left the country on a Rockefeller Foundation creative writing fellowship. The prestigious award took him to Spain, the United States, and (with a Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship from the publishers of Harper’s Magazine) Mexico. In this sojourn, which lasted more than two years, he worked on his first novel, The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1961), a short and early version of which had appeared in Prose and Poems. The Woman Who Had Two Navels is a many-layered and less-than-perfect novel that teases out universal antinomies of truth and falsehood, illusion and reality, past and present, and locates them in the context of the Filipino search for identity. Though Joaquín had been criticized for a romantic “nostalgia for the past,” this novel and his other works, including Portrait, showed that he looked at the past always with the consciousness of the need for engaging the present world in its own terms.
Joaquín enjoyed his travels. He traveled all over Spain, lived in Madrid and Mallorca, visited France, stayed a year in Manhattan, went on an American cross-country trip on a Greyhound bus, crossed the border to Laredo, and had fun exploring Mexico. Spain and Mexico fascinated him (“my kind of country,” he says). He would, in the years that followed, take trips to Cuba, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Australia. Yet he was clearly in his element in his homeland and in Manila, the city that has been his imagination’s favorite haunt.
From the time he rejoined Free Press in 1957 until he left it in 1970 (during which time he rose to be the magazine’s literary editor and associate editor), Joaquin was as prominent in his persona as Quijano de Manila (a pseudonym he adopted for his journalistic writings when he joined the Free Press in 1950) as he was the creative artist Nick Joaquín. He churned out an average of fifty feature articles a year during this period. He wrote with eloquence and verve on the most democratic range of subjects, from the arts and popular culture to history and current politics. He was a widely read chronicler of the times, original and provocative in his insights and energetic and compassionate in his embrace of local realities.
One of his contemporaries remarked: “Nick Joaquín the journalist has brought to the craft the sensibility and style of the literary artist, the perceptions of an astute student of the Filipino psyche, and the integrity and idealism of the man of conscience, and the result has been a class of journalism that is dramatic, insightful, memorable, and eminently readable.”
He raised journalistic reportage to an art form. In his crime stories—for example, “The House on Zapote Street” (1961) and “The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society’” (1961)—he deployed his narrative skills in producing gripping psychological thrillers rich in scene, incident, and character. More important, he turned what would otherwise be ordinary crime reports (e.g., a crime of passion in an unremarkable Makati suburban home or the poor boy who gets caught up in a teenage gang war) into priceless vignettes of Philippine social history.
As Free Press literary editor, he virtually presided over the country’s literary scene. Free Press was the standard in Philippine writing in English because of its wide circulation and Joaquín’s editorship. Its weekly publication of short stories and poems was avidly followed. Joaquin was generous in encouraging young writers and exerted an influence on writers not only in English but in the Philippine languages. In a Filipino generation that had seen outstanding fictionists (N. V. M. González, F. Sionil José, and others), he was fondly spoken of as primus inter pares.
Since he joined the Free Press, he had been a full-time writer. The only other “job” he took was an appointment to the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, from 1961 to 1972, under both presidents Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos. He took the post because, in large part, he loved the movies and practically did no cutting or banning of films, believing in the intelligence and good sense of moviegoers. He described this stint: “I was non-censoring.”
Philippine society was going through a period of deepening social crisis. The high hopes engendered during the popular rule of Ramón Magsaysay began to dissipate after Magsaysay’s death in 1957, as corruption, factional politics, and economic crisis buffeted the administrations of presidents Carlos García, Diosdado Macapagal, and Ferdinand Marcos. The Vietnam War politicized the Filipino intelligentsia, the economy floundered, a new Communist Party was established in 1969, and a new wave of militant nationalism swept through such institutions as universities and the media.
In the highly charged days leading up to the declaration of martial law on September 21, 1972, Joaquin maintained his independence as an autonomous voice in Philippine media. He wrote articles that were current, stayed close to the events, and were deeply fired by liberal sentiments. In a time polarized by ideological conflict, he continued to speak in his own voice and not in those of others. This independence had always been a signal virtue of his writing career.
In the 1930s, when he started writing, he was already a writer apart. At a time when the United States was viewed as “the very measure of all goodness,” and “history” and “civilization” in the Philippines seemed to have begun with the advent of America, Joaquin invoked a deeper past. At a time when to be contemporary was to be “secular,” Joaquín evoked the country’s Christian tradition. At a time when “proletarian literature” was the “correct” line for young writers to follow, Joaquín was the skeptic who felt it was one more instance of local literary hierarchs’ “parroting the Americans, among whom ‘proletarian’ was then the latest buzzword.” He wrote: “I can see now that my start as a writer was a swimming against the current, a going against the grain.”
He had always been a writer engaged but apart. Part of the explanation resided in his character. Engaged in a public profession, with a very public name, he was a very private person. His reclusive character was formed early. In a rare, affectionate piece his sister-in-law Sarah Joaquín wrote about him in Philippine Review in 1943, she spoke of the young Nick as a modest and unassuming young man who was ill at ease with public praise and shied away from being interviewed or photographed (“he hadn’t had any taken for fifteen years”). Even then he lived his days according to certain well-loved rites. He loved going out on long walks (“a tall, thin fellow, a little slouched, walking in Intramuros, almost always hurriedly”), simply dressed, shoes worn out from a great deal of walking (which helped him cogitate), observing the street life of the city, making the rounds of churches. “He is the most religious fellow I know,” Sarah wrote. “Except when his work interferes, he receives Holy Communion everyday.” He was generous with friends and devoted to the family with whom, even in his teens, he shared what little money he earned.
A person of habit, he scribbled about himself many decades ago:
I have no hobbies, no degrees; belong to no party, club, or association;
and I like long walks; any kind of guinataan; Dickens and Booth Tarking-
ton; the old Garbo pictures; anything with Fred Astaire… the Opus Dei
according to the Dominican rite… Jimmy Durante and Cole Porter tunes…
the Marx brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Carmen Miranda; Paul’s
Epistles and Mark’s; Piedmont cigarettes… my mother’s cooking…
playing tres-siete; praying the Rosary and the Officium Parvum… I don’t
like fish, sports, and having to dress up.
Though he cut the image of one gregarious with his loud, booming voice; his love for San Miguel beer (a product that turned him into an icon for Filipino beer drinkers); and his joy in belting out Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra songs in intimate gatherings in his favorite Manila cafés, he stuck close to the company of a few friends and hated making formal appearances in public. He grudgingly gave interviews and revealed such scant detail about his personal life that there are many gaps and contradictions in his published biographies. He was not above making mischief on unwitting interviewers by inventing stories about himself. He refused to give the exact date of his birth (May 4 and September 15 in 1917 have been cited) because, he said, he hated having people come around to celebrate his birthday.
He had zealously carved out private space in his home where he wrote reams in longhand or on a typewriter. Though he gave strangers the impression of someone careless and even dissolute, Joaquín was a very disciplined writer. He woke up early to read the newspapers, took breakfast, and, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, retired to his library on the second floor of his house where no one was allowed to disturb him. In his clean and spare study, with books on shelves lining the walls and, in the center, a chair and a table with a manual typewriter, Nick did his work. From 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., he took a siesta and, often, his second bath of the day, and then from around 4:00 p.m. onward, he was out of the house to go to the editorial office or explore his favorite haunts in Manila.
The turbulent days of political activism, as the 1960s came to a close, did not leave this very private person unaffected. In 1970, he joined a labor union organized by the workers of Free Press and agreed to be its president. This was the first union to be organized in the sixty-two-year-old publishing company that was widely regarded as a beacon of libertarian ideas. Organized at a time when Manila was seething with civil unrest, the appearance of the union sparked a bitter fight in the company. When management cracked down on the union, Joaquín resigned. With Free Press editor-writers Gregorio C. Brillantes and José F. Lacaba, artist Danilo Dalena, and close to thirty personnel of the administrative and printing departments, Joaquín launched the weekly Asia-Philippines Leader in 1971 and served as its editor-in-chief. In the pages of the magazine he wrote a regular column, “This Week’s Jottings,” where he continued his trenchant commentaries on the Philippine scene.
Martial law closed down Philippine media, including Free Press and Asia-Philippines Leader. The Marcos government subsequently allowed the publication of a few favored periodicals controlled by the Marcoses and their cronies. Joaquín refused to contribute. Among many intellectuals, silence became a form of protest. Joaquín’s irrepressible pen, however, could not be stilled. “I was never silent during martial law,” Joaquín declared in an interview in 1980. “I’ve never been silent.” He continued to write, worked independently, and contributed to both the underground and aboveground alternative press, the small newspapers and news sheets that came to be referred to as the “mosquito press” during the martial-law period.
Ironically, there was probably no other time when there was as much publishing of Joaquín writings as in the 1970s. These publications showcased his boundless creativity and versatility. In 1977, the National Book Store started issuing popular compilations of his Free Press human-interest features and crime stories (Reportage on Lovers, Reportage on Crime) as well as articles on local icons of popular culture (Nora Aunor and Other Profiles, Ronnie Poe and Other Silhouettes, Amalia Fuentes and Other Etchings, Doveglion and Other Cameos, Gloria Díaz and Other Delineations, Joseph Estrada and Other Sketches). Such was his readership that, between 1979 and 1983, more collections of his journalistic articles were issued: Reportage on the Marcoses, Reportage on Politics, Language of the Street and Other Essays, and Manila: Sin City and Other Chronicles. A selection of his speeches and articles appeared in Discourses of the Devil’s Advocate and Other Controversies (1983). It is not disingenuous to say that such burst of publishing may have been fueled by a certain nostalgia for the colorful, rough-and-tumble years before martial law imposed an order of repression and dull conformism.
Mr. & Ms. Publishing published Nick Joaquín’s Almanac for Manileños (1979), a coffee-table book that turns the form of the old almanac into “a weather chart, a sanctoral, a zodiac guide, and a mini-encyclopedia on the world of the Manileño.” Almanac is a romp for a writer whose knowledge of the country’s capital city —from churches to brothels, politicians and criminals, fashions high and low, past and present— has not been matched by anyone. In 1978–1979, the same publisher also commissioned Joaquin’s children’s stories and modernized fairy tales and put them out as independent titles as well as in an anthology, Pop Stories for Groovy Kids. Some of these stories also appeared in a volume entitled Joaquinesquerie: Myth á la Mod (1983). He had been asked to write just one story in the beginning, but he so enjoyed doing it that more followed (“it’s like eating peanuts”). That this writer of metaphysical thrillers also had a deft hand writing for young readers is shown in his essays on Manila for young Manileños, Manila, My Manila (1990), and his retelling of the biography of José Rizal, Rizal in Saga: A Life for Student Fans (1996).
He translated Spanish works into English, something he had done intermittently for years. His most important in this field was The Complete Poems and Plays of José Rizal (1976). Nick also returned to theater. He adapted the stories “Three Generations” and “Summer Solstice” as the plays Fathers and Sons (1977) and Tatarín (1978), respectively. In 1976, he wrote The Beatas, the story of a seventeenth-century Filipino beguinage, a religious community of lay women, repressed by a male-dominated, colonial order. The subversive message of the play, in the particular context of martial rule, lent itself to a staging in Tagalog translation in the highly political campus of the University of the Philippines in 1978. These plays later appeared in the volume, Tropical Baroque: Four Manileño Theatricals, published in Manila in 1979 and in Australia in 1982.
In 1972, the University of Queensland Press in Australia published a new edition of his fiction under the title, Tropical Gothic. An important feature of this edition was the inclusion of three novellas that originally appeared in Free Press, “Cándido’s Apocalypse,” “Doña Jerónima,” and “The Order of Melkizedek.” These novellas are powerful, historically resonant narratives that probably best represent the inventiveness and depth of Joaquín as fictionist. They are among the most outstanding pieces of Philippine fiction that have been written.
He went back to writing poetry, something he had not done since 1965. El Camino Real and Other Rimes appeared in 1983 and Collected Verse, the author’s choice of thirty-three poems, was published in 1987. Ranging from light verse to long narrative pieces, these poems —robust, confident, expansive, elegant— are markers in the development of Philippine poetry. They demonstrate, says the poet-critic Gémino H. Abad, a level of achievement in which the Filipino is no longer writing in English but has indeed “wrought from English, having as it were colonized that language.”
That the Filipino writer wrote in English was a virtue that seemed self-evident when Joaquin started his career in the 1930s. English was the language of government, the schools, and the leading publications. It was, for young Filipinos, the language of modernity and the future. In the late 1960s, however, the use of the English language in such fields as education, literature, and publishing came under serious question as a Marxist-inspired nationalism sought to establish a radical, popular basis for the national culture. Those who wrote in English either switched languages or felt called upon to defend their use of a foreign tongue. Arguing out of his favorite thesis that the Filipino is enriched by his creative appropriation of new technologies, Joaquin extolled the fresh values of temper and sensibility that English had brought into the national literature. As for his own writings, Joaquin’s response to the issue was more blunt: “Whether it is in Tagalog or English, because I am Filipino, every single line I write is in Filipino.” In a more jocular vein, he had written about how the local milieu was irrevocably present in his works: “I tell my readers that the best compliment they can pay me is to say that they smell adobo and lechón when they read me. I was smelling adobo and lechon when I wrote me.”
In 1976, Nick Joaquín was named National Artist of the Philippines in the field of literature, the highest recognition given by the state for an artist in the country. Conferred in Manila on March 27, 1976, the award praised his works as “beacons in the racial landscape” and the author for his “rare excellence and significant contribution to literature.”
Joaquín had reservations about accepting an award conceived by the Marcos government as part of First Lady Imelda Marcos’s high-profile program of arts promotion in the country, but he decided to accept it on the advice of family and friends. He also felt the award would give him leverage to ask Malacañang Palace to release from prison José F. Lacaba, a close friend of his and one of the country’s best writers, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the anti-Marcos resistance. Lacaba was released in 1976.
Joaquín kept his distance from power, studiously resisting invitations to attend state functions in Malacañang Palace. At a ceremony on Mount Makiling, Laguna, attended by Mrs. Marcos, who had built on the fabled mountain site a National Arts Center, Joaquín delivered a speech in which he provocatively spoke of freedom and the artist. He was never again invited to address formal cultural occasions for the rest of the Marcos regime. He was too unpredictable to suit the pious pretensions of the martial-law government.
The fact that government had conferred on him the honor of National Artist did not prevent him from criticizing government. In 1982, he put himself at the forefront of a public demonstration to protest government’s closure of the oppositionist newspaper We Forum and the arrest and detention of its publisher and editors. The newspaper had just published a series of articles exposing Ferdinand Marcos’s fake war medals.
The street appearance was not characteristic of the man. It was in the field of writing that he engaged power. Joaquin was the provocateur who delighted in debunking what was politically and intellectually fashionable. One such “fashion” was the interest in the “ethnic” and “indigenous” during the Marcos era. A legitimate expression of post-Vietnam Filipino nationalism, the return to the “native” was appropriated by state nationalism during the martial-law period. In the attempt to clothe with legitimacy Marcos’s “experiment” in Philippine-style democracy (and authoritarianism) and blunt both the insurgent opposition to his rule and Western criticism of human-rights violations, the Marcos government appealed to “nationalism” based on an indigenous and Asian heritage. In the intellectual field, this found expression in many intersecting ways: the glorification of barangay democracy; the promotion of Tagalog as the national language and the downgrading of English writing; the “Filipinization” of scholarly disciplines; the romancing of the 1971 discovery of the allegedly Stone-Age Tasadays; and the state-sponsored Tadhanà project started in 1975, in which a group of Filipino historians wrote a “new history” of the Philippines under the name of Ferdinand Marcos.
Addressing this trend, Nick Joaquín wrote articles attacking nativism and the glorification of the indigenous and the ethnic. Describing the Filipino as a “work in progress” whose national identity is the dynamic product of the various cultural influences in his history (in particular, he stresses, the Spanish-Christian experience), he debunked the idea of a “pure” native culture and lamented the denigration of Western influence. A vigorous polemicist, he taunted the “new” nationalists with statements such as “Asia, before 1521, was conspicuous by its absence in Philippine culture” or “Those who want Philippine culture to be what it was 400 years ago are afflicted with the Dorian Gray illusion: the illusion that innocence can be frozen or that a personality can be kept from showing the effects on it of time, space, nature, society, the outside world.”
The terrain had changed but Joaquín was fighting a battle he had started to wage as early as the 1930s. Then he was reacting to an intellectual establishment that, infatuated with America, wanted to wean itself from the past much too quickly. Now he was responding to leaders and intellectuals who, desiring to break away from the West, were invoking a golden past he felt was not there. In the years of the Japanese occupation, he was writing against the grain when he wrote the seminal essay “La Naval de Manila.” Then he was responding (whether deliberately or not) to the trend, encouraged by the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” for Filipinos to return to their “Asian” and “Malayan” roots. Now, in the 1970s, he was interrogating the scapegoating of the West and the romancing of “Asianness.”
Polemical rather than academic, he simplified the terms of the debate, drew dividing lines much too sharply, and couched arguments in hyperbolic terms. He was impatient with the either/or rhetoric of indigenists and nationalists. “Why isn’t it enough to be just Filipino?” Quoting James Joyce, he declared of his own work: “This country and this people shaped me; I shall express myself as I am.” He was, as always, the writer apart but passionately engaged.
In A Question of Heroes: Essays in Criticism on Ten Key Figures of Philippine History (1977) and Culture and History: Occasional Notes on the Process of Philippine Becoming (1988), he showed himself an insightful historian and vigorous cultural critic. Addressing a general public rather than specialists, he said that it was his aim to “open up fresh viewpoints on the national process” by asking “those pesky questions which, though they seem so obvious, have somehow never been asked about our history and culture.”
In Question of Heroes, a series of articles on Filipino heroes that first appeared in the Free Press in the 1960s, he demystified the heroes associated with the birth of the nation in the late nineteenth century. He humanized them, thickened their lives with sharp and telling detail, and situated them in the living context of their times. The result was not just a critical reevaluation of historical figures but a coherent picture of a nation in formation. Culture and History offered a more varied fare of fifteen essays that developed Joaquin’s ideas on what he called “the process of Filipino becoming.” Underlying these ideas was an evolutionary and optimistic confidence in the Filipino capacity to invent himself out of the constraints and opportunities of his historical experience. Attacking the syndrome of shame over the colonial past and guilt over being “neither East nor West,” Joaquín celebrated hybridity. Attacking nativism and other forms of exclusionism, he said (quoting Oswald Spengler), “Historic is that which is, or has been, effective,” and he gloried in what the Filipino has and will become.
There are conceptual gaps in Joaquín’s view of Philippine history. He tended to be too dismissive of precolonial culture (even as it figured in his own fiction), overstressed the transformative role of technology, and was perhaps too apologetic of the Spanish and Christian influence in Philippine culture. There was no denying, however, the intelligent passion with which he embraced his people’s culture and history. Few in his time played as effective a role in the public discourse on the national culture.
The shaking loose of the structure of the martial-law regime after the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983, and the eventual collapse of the regime in the “People Power Revolution” of 1986, saw Nick Joaquín right in the public stream as the country’s premier chronicler of current history. A book that he started writing before martial law was declared in 1972, The Aquinos of Tarlac: An Essay on History as Three Generations, appeared in 1983. His chronicle of the People Power Revolution, The Quartet of the Tiger Moon, was published in 1986.
Twenty-two years after The Woman Who Had Two Navels, Joaquín came out with his second novel, Cave and Shadows (1983). He jokingly remarked at its appearance: “Now, I’ll be known as the man who has two novels.” Fervid and dense, Cave and Shadows was Joaquín’s “objective correlative” to the Crisis of ’72. Set in Manila in the steamy month of August 1972, just before the declaration of martial law, the novel weaves a plot around the discovery of a woman’s naked body in a cave in the suburbs of Manila. The search for answers to the mystery of the woman’s death becomes a metaphysical thriller in which past and present collide and reality is unhinged as a social order breaks down in division and revolution.
A deep fount of creative energy, Joaquín was a much sought-after biographer. From 1979 to 2000, he authored more than a dozen book-length biographies of prominent Filipinos, from artists and educators to business people and politicians. These include the biographies of diplomat Carlos Rómulo, senators Manuel Manahan and Salvador Laurel, technocrat Rafaél Salas, businessmen Jaime Ongpín and D. M. Guevara, artist Leonor Orosa Goquingco, educator Nicanor Reyes, civic leader Estefania Aldaba-Lim, and Jaime Cardinal Sin. He also wrote local and institutional histories—such as San Miguel de Manila: Memoirs of a Regal Parish (1990) and Hers, This Grove: The Story of Philippine Women’s University (1996)—and authored or edited diverse other volumes.
He was criticized for “writing too much,” producing commissioned biographies of uneven quality, and forsaking creative writing for journalism. While his Aquinos of Tarlac was a masterful interweaving of the life of a family and that of a nation, May Langit Din Ang Mahirap (1998), his biography of former Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, seemed like a hurried, paste-up job. While his talent could be quite profligate, there was no mistaking the genuineness of his appetite for local life and drive to convert this to memorable form.
Nick Joaquín’s stature in his country is demonstrated by the numerous prizes he received for his literary and journalistic writings. His contributions to Philippine culture were acknowledged by the City of Manila with an Araw ng Maynila Award (1963), a Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan Award (1964), and a Diwa ng Lahi Award (1979). The national government conferred on him its highest cultural honors, the Republic Cultural Heritage Award (1961) and the title of National Artist of the Philippines (1976).
In 1996, he received the Ramón Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the highest honor for a writer in Asia. The citation honored him for “exploring the mysteries of the Filipino body and soul in sixty inspired years as a writer.” Accepting the award on August 31, 1996, Joaquin did not look back on past achievements but relished the moment, saying that indeed the good wine has been reserved for last and “the best is yet to be.” This from a man who was about to turn eighty when he received the award.
In his 1996 Ramón Magsaysay Award lecture, Joaquín addressed what, he said, had troubled his critics as his “Jekyll/Hyde” personality as journalist and litterateur. He had never been the hothouse artist, he declared, and had always felt there was no subject not worthy of his attention. The practice of journalism nourished his populist sympathies. “Journalism trained me never, never to feel superior to whatever I was reporting, and always, always to respect an assignment, whether it was a basketball game, or a political campaign, or a fashion show, or a murder case, or a movie-star interview.” Journalism exercised his powers of storytelling. “Good reportage is telling it as it is but at the same time telling it new, telling it surprising, telling it significant.”
Though he largely played his life and career “by ear,” Joaquín relished how he had moved in the right directions. On the one hand, he could trace himself back to the times when Plato and Cervantes or the Arabian Nights and the Letters of Saint Paul were all “literature” and there were no fine distinctions as to which mode of writing was belle and not belle enough. On the other hand, he had foreshadowed current trends that had broken down the generic boundaries of fiction and nonfiction or “journalism” and “literature.”
With the mischievous glee of one who enjoyed what he was doing, he said that such Joaquín reportage as “House on Zapote Street” and “The Boy Who Wanted to Become ‘Society’” antedated the American “New Journalism” that writers such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal made famous. Moreover, the fiction that he wrote—from “May Day Eve” and “The Mass of St. Sylvester” to “Doña Jerónima” and “Cándido’s Apocalypse”—bodied forth “magic realism” long before the Latin American novelists made it fashionable.
While Nick Joaquín wrote in English, was published abroad, and had some of his works translated into foreign languages, he did not quite receive the high attention he deserved outside the Philippines. This was something probably of no great moment to Joaquín himself. He was firmly rooted in place and in active dialogue with his Filipino audience. This speaking to and about his people had always framed his writing life. Though he spoke from a specific location—writing in English out of Manila (he had not lived for any significant amount of time outside the capital)—his voice carried far among Filipinos.
In the Philippines, Nick Joaquín was a keeper of tradition and a maker of memory. He grew up in what he called an “Age of Innocence” in Philippine history, an era when Filipinos, seduced by the promise of America and modernity, distanced themselves from their Spanish colonial past and slipped into a kind of amnesia. He saw—having grown up in a home where his father told stories about the revolution and his mother encouraged a love for Spanish poetry—that it was his calling “to bring in the perspective, to bring in the grandfathers, to manifest roots.” In his writings, he traced a landscape haunted by the past—pagan rites in the shadows of the Christian church, legends of a woman in the cave, strange prophets roaming the countryside, grandfathers who seem like ghosts who have strayed into the present. He conjured a society stranded in the present and not quite whole because it had not come to terms with its past.
The problem of identity was central in Joaquín’s works. In an impressive body of literary, historical, and journalistic writings, Joaquín was a significant participant in the public discourse on “Filipino identity.” What marked the positions he took was his refusal of easy orthodoxies. An outsider to government, the political parties, and the universities, he kept his space to be an independent thinker on the issues confronting the nation. From the 1930s to until his death, he was consistent in his role as the critic of what passed for the politically “correct” of the day. In this manner, he opened up spaces for the Filipino to imagine himself in novel ways and act on this basis.
Nick Joaquín lived through eight decades of Philippine history and witnessed the slow, uneven, and often violent transformation of the nation—the American idyll of the prewar years, the violence and degradation of an enemy occupation, the Communist insurgency and the hard choices it confronted the Filipino with, the dark years of martial rule, the waxing and waning of hopes for a better nation. It is history that tempts many with despair. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Nick Joaquín, the writer, was that his was always the voice of a deep, inclusive, and compassionate optimism in the Filipino.
He had always—as Joaquín himself would say, quoting one of his favorite literary lines—raged, raged against the dying of the light. This was true not only of what he had written but how he had lived his life. When many of his contemporaries had long faded into the background, Joaquín continued to speak of his craft with the verve of a young writer. Well into his eighties, with close to sixty book titles to his name, he was working on more. He also continued to practice journalism. He wrote the regular columns “Small Beer” and “Jottings” for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Sunday Inquirer Magazine from 1988 to 1990; served as editor of Philippine Graphic magazine and publisher of its sister publication, Mirror Weekly, in 1990; and continued to contribute to various publications until his final days. When asked once if he ever intended to retire, Joaquín was said to have responded, with typical mischief, “I’m not retiring and I’m not resigned.”
NICK Joaquín lived in the city and country of his affections and continued to write until his death in April 2004 at the age of eighty-six.